Well-intended attempts to help after a disaster may make a confusing situation worse

The situation after a disaster can be extremely chaotic, as everyone works as quickly as they can to try and help. Adding to this chaos is an increasing number of individuals and companies traveling to the disaster scene to distribute aid. While well-intentioned, these efforts can often exacerbate the problems common to disaster relief, such as:

  • A confusion of actors making it impossible to know for sure who has received what already
  • Unequal distribution of aid, with some areas getting much more assistance while other areas may get far less
  • Creating aid dependency by distributing aid in such a way that people come to depend on it
  • An influx of inappropriate aid clogging the ports

A confusion of people and organizations

If a disaster were to happen in your own town you may get help from:

  • Your neighbors, friends, and family
  • Community based organizations – like your local food pantry
  • Local churches – which often serve as immediate shelters after the disaster and help feed and clothe disaster victims
  • City and county first responders – such as the police and fire departments
  • Local clubs and civil service organizations such as Rotary or Lions Club
  • County and state government offices – such as the National Guard
  • State wide aid non-profits – such as the Red Cross
  • National and International businesses – such as Coca Cola after the tsunami
  • National government offices – such as FEMA or units of the Army or Navy
  • National and international aid organizations – such as CARE or OXFAM
  • Depending on the disaster, the offices of United Nations might respond such as the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) or UNICEF

Just listing the different organizations can make your head spin, let alone trying to track and coordinate their work. Unfortunately, because of the sheer numbers and types organizations, coordination and information sharing generally only happens within smaller groups. The local government talks to other government offices, the local aid organizations generally share information with each other and some government offices, and the international aid organizations may share information with each other, the UN, and some government offices. Although there are attempts to improve this with the Humanitarian Reform Process, currently a coordinated response between all the actors is far more a goal than a reality.

Add to this confusion people outside any of the coordination structures showing up for a week or two to distribute aid, and the chances of duplicating each others work becomes even more likely.

Unequal distribution of aid

Because there is generally no shared needs assessment or a fully coordinated response plan, the location of your village or your temporary shelter can affect how much aid you receive. Areas that are closer to a main road, are easily accessible, or that receive a lot of media attention, generally get more aid. Locations that are difficult to access, such islands or in areas with poor road access tend to get less aid.  People that chose to live with family members rather than in camps may miss out on a variety of help. This unequal distribution of assistance cause widespread rumors In Thailand that people were moving to temporary camps closer to the main road so they could get more handouts.

With no overall needs assessment readily available, and without the time or the money to do a comprehensive needs assessment, people delivering goods themselves must rely on what they can see or where their translator or guide directs them. This means they are far more likely to go to the areas that are easily accessible and better known. Therefore, instead of giving aid to those that need it the most, they may accidentally compound the problem of unequal distribution of aid. Additionally, because they are acting alone, there is a very good chance that other aid organizations are unaware of the aid given. This creates an even greater probability of duplicated assistance.

Creating aid dependency

After the tsunami, many people came with goods donated from home (see related post on problems with inappropriate donations) or with cash. Often people would hand out 1,000 baht bills (about 35 USD) to each person or family in a camp. Because the average day laborer makes about 5,000 – 6,000 baht a month, this windfall was too much to be missed.

People handing out help could show up at any time of the day, depending on their travel schedule, villagers that went to work risked missing out on whatever was donated. This lead to people staying in the camps to receive handouts rather than seeking day labor jobs. A local orchard owner complained to me that he could no longer hire any help because no one wanted to work anymore. A local monk complained about all the handouts creating aid dependency.

Inappropriate aid clogging ports

All people and goods arriving in a country must enter through sea or air ports. The huge influx of people and goods entering a country after a disaster may far exceed the capacity of the local government to process in a timely manner. Unless the country has the appropriate laws and regulations already in place as well as the authority to prioritize which people and goods are allowed in the country first, well-intended donations of clothing may take up the customs area preventing shipments of medicine from clearing customs.

Consider staying home and donating

Unless you are immediately adjacent to the disaster and can get basic supplies there within the first 72 hours, it is better to stay out of the fray and donate to the aid agency you think will do the best job. Although traveling to an area to distribute aid is appealing, the common problems inherent in disaster relief mean that your well-intended assistance may exacerbate an already difficult and confusing situation